Since 1988, the Tenement Museum has offered visitors a glimpse into the lives of the former residents of 97 Orchard Street. But what was going on at the base of the building—besides queues for the outdoor privies? In “Shop Life,” a new guided tour that begins previews on November 12, the museum will explore the diverse array of retailers that occupied its two garden-level storefronts during its stint as a tenement and well into the 20th century. According to Annie Polland, the museum’s vice president of programs and education, “Shop Life” is designed not only to shed light on turn-of-the-century Manhattan, but also to make visitors think about their own relationships to the neighborhood spots they frequent. “It’s about why you go to a place, beyond to get what is sold there,” she explains. “Like, you go to a café—you want coffee, but you’re also going so you can talk to the cute boy that works there.”
In one storefront, the museum reconstructed a saloon that occupied the space from 1864 to 1886. German immigrants John and Caroline Schneider tailored their drinkery to the thriving Teutonic community that had sprung up in the Lower East Side, which was then known as Kleindeutschland (“Little Germany”). The bar looks like one you might encounter in, say, Williamsburg today—a cozy basement space with a shiny wooden bar, low round tables and pressed-tin walls painted an earthy green. And it was more than just a spot to toss back a cold one (well, a room-temperature one—in those days, suds came straight from the barrel). The bar was also a hub for the building’s multiethnic residents: Everything from business transactions and political meetings to live musical performances and family gatherings took place here—the Schneiders even collected the building’s mail. “We call it the living room of the community,” says Polland.
The museum took a more modern approach in the adjoining storefront, using interactive, motion-activated screens to tell the stories of three different businesses that existed there: a kosher butcher shop that opened in 1900, a 1930s auction house and a 1970s underwear shop. “The implicit thing we’re asking through this exhibit is: What is the American Dream? Is having a store part of it?” says Polland. The exhibit also features video interviews with contemporary LES shopkeepers—a reminder that the past and the present are inextricably linked. And for Polland, the past is decidedly not a foreign country. “We don’t want it to be like a dollhouse where people just come in and say, ‘Oh, the past is so interesting!’” she notes. “We really want them to experience how people would’ve experienced the space and make connections to their own lives today.”
“Shop Life” preview tours begin on November 12 at the Tenement Museum (103 Orchard St between Broome and Delancey Sts; 212-982-8420, tenement.org). $22, seniors and students $17.